“Hey, so you’re on a list of people that I want to be friends with, so let’s be friends.”
That’s probably not one of the most usual messages you’d expect on Facebook. Actually, it’s among one of the more abnormal ones I’ve received. It was my sophomore year of high school, and a random classmate had messaged me. Even in a small class of 300 students, I had never spoken to her. We were in different classes and had different friends, but we were Facebook friends. And soon after her message, we were “real life” friends, too.
Five years later, we’re still best friends. The quirky, outgoing personality that had lead her to send that brazen message became one of my favorite qualities about her. I found out that she really did have a list of potential friends, all of whom she contacted through Facebook. While high school — and, indeed, real life — is ridden with messy and frightening social dynamics, the internet can sometimes be a safe haven from these constrictions. We felt unable to socially interact outside of the hyper-stereotyped world that is high school. In a private online messenger, we were free from those dynamics. Without social anxiety and pressure, we could just chat.
Of course, there’s still ghosting and screenshots. The internet is no doubt rampant with cyberbullying and public humiliation. But for me, there’s something slightly less terrifying about sending a message. At least if I don’t get a response, I can delete the message and it’s like it never happened. I can reach out of my comfort zone without being too uncomfortable.
When my friend sent me that strange message, I responded enthusiastically. Where some might have been put off, I welcomed it, because I’ve made more friends online than I have in person. The internet was a great outlet for me, helping me to express myself and find welcoming communities. More than that, Facebook wasn’t a way for me to connect with old or current friends but to make new ones. I was too young to have an active MySpace, but Facebook’s inception aligned perfectly with my coming of age.
There’s something oddly pure about meeting a stranger when the only pretext is a Facebook conversation. I didn’t bump into them in a classroom and make small talk. I didn’t meet them through club sports or camp. Just through one simple, inviting button: Add as Friend. Although I met people through other sites, Facebook was my primary source of friend-making. Perhaps a little more outgoing than I should have been, I friended people who were in my area who looked interesting, and others did the same for me.
So with almost 2,000 friends, most of which I had never talked to, I would post status like “someone talk to me!” or “like this and I’ll tell you something I like about you.” Looking back on it now, I suppose it does sound a little desperate, but it worked. I would have people message me, and we would have a totally normal conversation. A lot of the time, I would talk on the phone with them, forming bonds with these “strangers.” Sometimes they stayed strangers, sometimes they didn’t.
Before there was Tinder, there was Facebook. Before you could swipe left, you could add. Of course this came off as dangerous, especially to friends and family. Most of the people I knew had never had an internet rendezvous. If I started dating someone, my friends would ask me how I met them. I would reply, “Facebook,” which earned me more shocked gasps then I can count.
Of course, sexual predators are real, and meeting people you don’t know online can be dangerous. People you meet online may have as malicious agendas as those you meet on the street. I sure have had my fair share of creep interactions on the internet, but less than you might imagine. When I met people, I made sure I was safe and in a public area. You can take precautions to ensure that your online meet ups don’t end badly.
Now, it’s much more common to meet people online. Everyone’s going on Tinder and OkCupid dates—it’s normalized. But what about friends? For me, Facebook no longer seems like a place where I can just message strangers and ask about their lives. Maybe that’s because I’m older now or maybe social media has changed. Either way, I still find the internet to be a place where a stranger can become a best friend with a few weird words and click of a button.